Archival Features, Poems


Mexico began as an attempt to make sense of a memory that has stayed with me all these years.  As a small child on vacation with my parents, I managed to step off the pool’s edge into deep water before either of them saw what I was doing. I must have been in there only moments, but I have carried with me the image of the sunlight coming in above my head, my mother’s frantic response, and then later—as if it were part of that moment—the sound of water coming from the bathroom and the slant of light on the tiles in our hotel room.  When I began writing the poem I did not know what those images would give way to, nor that—because my mother is no longer alive—I would see in that imagery the blueprint for the loss to come. (Natasha Trethewey)


It always comes back like this:      light streaming in, the sound of water
in a basin I know is white               my mother’s footsteps on the tile floor;
and the long road at day’s end                     the desert all around us, the sun
red and bearing down,                   the sun so large the sky seemed smaller,
burdened by its weight.                  What’s left is souvenir—plastic skeleton
I’d clutched in the market                             memento mori—and fragment,
memory incomplete, complete                    as an augur of loss, piecemeal
in its disordered parts:                                 my father was there
and he was not.                  In his box of photographs
I am sitting on a mule.                    He watches from the other side
of the camera.                                There are mountains in the distance behind me.
On the back he has written                          Tasha: Monterrey, 1969
but I recall only                    the flat road, the desert, the great sun and
light streaming in a window                          light filtered by water
closing over my head.                    How long before someone, my father,
pulled me out?                                Memory is the sun’s dazzle
on the pool’s surface above me, is               the primal sound
from my mother’s throat as I sink,                words I can’t make out,
her quick footsteps on the tiles.     Always, she is fragment—
augur of loss. I see her                  reaching, arms outstretched,
her voice muffled and far away                     her body between me
and the high sun, a corona of light                                around her face—her face blurred
(then, now) as through water:                       this distant, wavering lens.


Natasha Trethewey is the author of three collections of poetry, Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. At Emory University she is professor of English and holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry.